(EDITOR’S NOTE: Pistons.com continues its periodic look at some of the best and most significant games in franchise history. Next up: A critical road win to hold off Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls during the 1989 championship season.)
The farther removed from the first NBA title in Pistons history, the easier it is to become convinced it was an inevitability. Jack McCloskey’s daring trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre in February 1989 puzzled outsiders for its inherent risk, but McCloskey saw it differently – and when the Pistons went 30-4 over the final 34 games of the regular season, it was hard to quibble with his vision.
Then the Pistons punctuated the season with a sweep of the Showtime Lakers in the Finals, extinguishing the anguish of Game 7 losses to the Celtics in the 1987 conference finals and to the Lakers in the ’88 Finals – and affirming the belief that a Pistons win in ’89 was an inevitable natural progression.
But nothing seemed inevitable about it late on the last Saturday afternoon of May after Michael Jordan scored 17 of his 46 points in the fourth quarter to wipe out a 14-point Pistons lead and give the Chicago Bulls a 2-1 series edge plus home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals.
“I’m angry, disappointed and mad as hell,” Joe Dumars said in the cramped visitors locker room at old Chicago Stadium, the loudest, most intimidating arena in NBA history. “We gave them the game, plain and simple. There’s no excuse for that.”
Dumars and Isiah Thomas would later call it as devastating a loss as they’d ever suffered. The Pistons knew they only had so wide a window to win a title and history shows that other teams earmarked as championship contenders in that era exited it without any title banners. The Cleveland Cavaliers were called the “team of the ’90s” by Magic Johnson and Portland was stacked with young talent, but neither wound up winning a title in the decade.
And while the narrative today has become that the Pistons were inside the Bulls’ heads, Jordan did plenty of gloating after that Game 3 win.
“They don’t have that go-to guy right now,” he said. “It used to be Adrian Dantley. We could never stop him. If they needed a basket at the end, they could go to him in isolation and he’d get a shot or a foul. I was real happy when they traded Dantley for Mark Aguirre. It’s a lot easier for us now.”
And then Jordan capped off his observations by saying, “some things are meant to be” – as if it were the Bulls, not the Pistons, that fate had determined would win the 1989 title and take the baton from the Celtics in the East and the Lakers in the West. It would have been easy, after all, to accept that narrative – that Jordan was the worthy heir to Johnson and Larry Bird as kings of the NBA.
The Pistons had all of those thoughts rumbling through their heads through the rest of that holiday weekend leading to the Memorial Day matinee at Chicago Stadium, where the Bulls were poised to take a 3-1 series lead.
The momentum that carried the Bulls to the finish line in Game 3 carried over to Game 4, too, with Chicago scoring 26 first-quarter points – a healthy total against the rugged Bad Boys – and leading by four points. But the Pistons, adhering to the tenets of the “Jordan Rules” that became the focus of intense media speculation through the drama of four consecutive seasons of Pistons-Bulls playoff matchups, held Chicago to just 13 second-quarter points to lead 42-39 at halftime.
Thomas, a schoolboy legend and enormously popular figure in Chicago before Jordan took over the city, had struggled throughout the playoffs up to that point after suffering a broken left hand on April 7, two weeks before the regular season ended. Thomas was given the typical timeline for a broken bone – six to eight weeks – but scoffed at it and, in character, was back in less than a week, missing only two games. But through the first 10 playoff games – a three-game sweep of Boston, a four-game sweep of Milwaukee and the first three games of the Chicago series – Thomas shot just 36.5 percent and in the Game 3 loss he scored just five points and took only eight shots.
Understanding the stakes, Game 4 was his breakthrough performance. Thomas led the Pistons to an 86-80 win – the Bulls scored only 54 points over the final three quarters – in finishing with 27 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals. Dumars added 15 points and James Edwards contributed 13 off the bench, which also featured Dennis Rodman’s 18 rebounds. The Pistons dominated the glass, 56-40 overall and 23-9 on the offensive end, and held a whopping 46-27 edge in foul shots – clear indicators of which team was the aggressor.
“It was ugly,” Bill Laimbeer said, “but that’s the way we’ve won all year.”
“I saw a lot of beauty in that game,” Chuck Daly grinned. “I loved the physicalness, the work ethic.”
“I looked at this game as maybe the most important game of my career,” Thomas said afterward. “Everything was on the line. My career and my peace of mind were at stake. We were expected to make the Finals again and if we don’t, I’m sure a lot of people are going to be looking at me.”
“He was a real captain in the true sense of the word,” Pistons assistant Brendan Suhr said after Thomas’ big game. “He was playing with his head and his heart. From a personal standpoint, this has got to be one of his best games.”
“We told him that he had to do it because he is the man,” John Salley said. “We needed him today like never before and he led us like he knows how.”
Dumars and Rodman tag-teamed on Jordan and limited him to 23 points on 5 of 15 shooting, sending Jordan to the foul line to shoot 17 free throws. Jordan made only two baskets in the final 41 minutes.
“I can’t believe that,” Dumars said when told of that statistic. “That’s not true, is it?”
But it was.
“First you take away his first option, then you take away his second option,” Rodman said of defending Jordan. “Then you try to stop his third option. That takes a lot of concentration.”
“The shots weren’t falling,” Jordan said. “So I tried to spread it around. But as a team we couldn’t hit the shots when we needed them. We just couldn’t get things going.”
Detroit’s bench outscored Chicago’s 36-2, seven of those points coming from Vinnie Johnson.
“We’ve been hearing a lot about how Michael Jordan is the best player in the NBA and how he’s going to take his team to the Finals,” Johnson said. “Well, the guy is a great player but no one player is going to beat our whole team. We didn’t win all those games this year just to lose to one guy, you know.”
One of the key adjustments the Pistons made between games 3 and 4 was much greater use of third-year forwards Rodman and Salley. Salley played 33 minutes, Rodman 32; starters Aguirre and Rick Mahorn played a combined 29 minutes.
The Pistons returned to The Palace, in its first season as their home, and re-established home-court advantage with a 94-85 win, then capped the series by again winning at Chicago Stadium 103-94 in Game 6. Thomas scored 33 points in the finale in his hometown.
As the game ended, Jordan told Dumars to “Bring it [the NBA title] back to the East, Joe.”
“I’ll do that,” Dumars replied. “And I’m glad I’m not going to see you again until next fall.”